The Treasure of San Gennaro, said to be worth more than the Crown Jewels in Tower of London, goes on display in Rome
A rich collection of jewel-encrusted religious treasures that represent seven centuries of faith, cultish devotion and superstition went on display for the first time in Rome on Wednesday.
“The Treasure of San Gennaro”, said to be worth more than the Crown Jewels held in the Tower of London, was brought to the Italian capital under tight security from its home in Naples.
Normally hidden away from public gaze in a chapel in Naples Cathedral, the collection, one of the most important in the world, includes saints’ busts in silver, lavishly-adorned necklaces and a golden mitre, the ceremonial headdress of bishops.
Created in 1713, it is studded with 3,326 diamonds, 164 rubies, nearly 200 emeralds and two garnets.
There is a silver bust of St Peter Martyr with a vicious-looking cleaver embedded in his head – he was murdered by assassins in northern Italy in 1252.
The collection includes a reproduction of a silver reliquary bust of San Gennaro which contains his skull, as well as immense, 12ft-tall candelabras decorated with cherubs.
There is an altar cross made from silver and studded with red coral, silver votive lamps and a winged Archangel St Michael slaying a bronze dragon, which writhes beneath his feet with its tongue lolling on the ground.
The treasure was donated by popes, kings, aristocrats and devotees over 700 years in tribute to San Gennaro, or St Januarius in English, the most important patron saint of Naples and the focus of cult-like veneration.
Neapolitans pray to the saint, who was beheaded in 305AD during the persecution of Christians by the Emperor Diocletian, to protect their city from poverty, disease and natural disasters such as the eruption of nearby Mount Vesuvius.
Three times a year a ceremony is held in which locals pray for the liquefaction of a coagulated blob of the saint’s blood, held in a glass ampoule set in a lavish silver reliquary. The liquefaction of the blood is hailed as a miracle and believers insist that it was once able to stop the eruption of lava from Mt Vesuvius.
The rare occasions on which it fails to turn to liquid are interpreted as a bad omen.
Scientists believe the blood liquefies through shaking, ambient heat or the warmth generated by being held in the hands of the archbishop conducting the ceremony.
“Every dynasty that has reigned Naples or passed through the city has left a very visible trace by bequeathing precious gifts to St Januarius, from the House of Anjou in 1305 to the House of Savoy in 1933,” the organisers of the exhibition said.
“Even members of the House of Bonaparte, who plundered everywhere, left an important token of respect to St Januarius when they lived in Naples.”
One of the most precious items is a necklace, begun in 1679 and designed to hang around the reliquary bust of St Januarius, which contains emeralds from Colombia, sapphires from Ceylon and diamonds.
The precious stones were donated over the centuries by European monarchs, as well as a few commoners.
A pair of diamond earrings attached to the large necklace was given by a Neapolitan woman in thanks for surviving a plague which swept through the port in 1844.
The exhibition, in Palazzo Sciarra in Rome, lasts until February 16.